Watching talk shows and comic soap operas on state television in Syria, one may well wonder whether the country is really in the throes of a deadly crisis.
It took a deadly attack on the regime’s crisis cell on July 18, and the spread of violence into several Damascus neighbourhoods over the past 10 days, before the channel finally turned to covering real news.
But even now, its coverage of the conflict that has gripped the country remains at best minimal.
More than 16 months into the outbreak of an anti-regime revolt, the state broadcaster dedicates practically all of its airtime to topics as mundane as the benefits of a vegetarian diet, the country’s heritage and aerobics sessions.
Life, according to Syrian TV, is normal.
After the attack that killed four top regime officials — including President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat — the state broadcaster’s tone became more sombre.
For the first time, footage showing the bloodied corpses of rebel fighters was aired, as were images of soldiers proud to declare they had “cleansed” neighbourhoods of Damascus from “terrorists, at the behest of residents.”
Such footage was broadcast to reassure a public that has long and repeatedly been told that Syria faces a “conspiracy” that “Syria will not give in,” and that “terrorists want to sow chaos.”
The jingoism has grown even more flagrant in recent days, with television spots showing images of battle-hardened troops in special training. Syria’s “brave armed forces” are celebrated with patriotic music and slogans blared across the airwaves.
The story so far according to Syrian state television stands in stark contrast to the version of events put out by pan-Arab satellite channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.
While both are vilified by the Damascus regime for their continuous coverage of the revolt, state television keeps the spotlight firmly on Assad’s version of what is happening.
Much of its airtime is devoted to more humdrum topics.
With much of the country ablaze, Syrian viewers wake up to images of a young man who explains “how to develop the biceps and triceps.” The trainer stands in a room decorated with a poster that, in English, reads: “Enjoy a healthy life.”
Next, it’s a talk show and to learn about “the benefits of brown bread,” “ostrich farming in Syria,” “the revival of oriental music in Sweida” in southern Syria, “an antiques exhibition in Aleppo” in the north, or “cooking in Ramadan.”
And now that the holy Muslim month has arrived, Syrian soap operas are the channel’s biggest highlight.
— ‘They take us for idiots’ —
Just days before fighting hit the capital in mid-July, a report in English announced the arrival of “summer in Damascus, so charming thanks to the jacaranda trees.”
When fierce fighting erupted in the Midan district of Damascus, the channel sent over a correspondent so viewers could be reassured that “all is well.”
Speaking live, the correspondent interviewed several visibly frightened people about a situation he reported as “calm,” when suddenly loud explosions and shooting were heard.
The video has now gone viral among anti-regime activists, who often mock state television’s portrayal of the Syrian crisis.
Pro-regime channels are the only ones allowed in public spaces in Damascus, but even Assad’s supporters are often not convinced by the coverage.
“We certainly support the government and the army, but (pro-regime) channels are definitely not telling the truth,” Bassam, a Damascus grocer, told AFP.
Ahmed, a young Syrian refugee who recently arrived in Beirut, does not watch state television either. “I used to watch it before, but I stopped,” he told AFP. “They take us for idiots.”
A Syrian regime supporter in Beirut admitted that “they exaggerate. They speak neither of the demonstrations nor about the opposition.”
Public television and radio have been subject to US and EU sanctions for several months, for being deemed to be instruments of propaganda for the regime.